Bai Di Cheng: White Emperor City: Li Bai and Inscriptions on Chinese Paintings

After visiting the pandas in Chengdu, Davidson in China sailed down the Yangtze River in Chong Qing. The second day, we arrived at White Emperor’s City, 白帝城, a city that I grudgingly got up for at six in the morning but then realized it was extremely close to heart. As I heard the tour guides say the name “白帝” repeatedly, a familiar poem by the famous Tang poet Li Bai appeared in my head and I asked Dr. Shao if this was the same city that the poet was describing.

“Yes, actually Li Bai was sent to this city, away from home because he was thought to be causing a disturbance in the capital,” Dr. Shao explained to me. “He was sent here but then when he was able to go back, he wrote this poem. He was so happy that he felt that the boat was going very fast. Was the boat going fast? Who knows.”

Regardless of the authenticity of the boat’s impressive speed, Li Bai’s poem was esteemed as high art for centuries. His poem describes not only the beautiful scenery of the clouds weighing heavily in the skies against the river, but also the loud clamor of the monkey on both ends and his own excited feeling for going home that mirrors the swiftly moving boat taking him home.

This poem was so renowned that other famous people, including Mao Zedong, who visited White Emperor’s City, wrote this poem on a stone slab, now which hangs next to other historical celebrities’ calligraphy writing. Each writer’s style has a different feel to it – some is written in loopy, cursive-like writing that exhibits loftiness and eliteness; other’s are more modern and direct that has a straight-forward feel. These series of poems, written in different styles by different people show how they have their personal interpretation of the poem.

Next to the stone tablets of Li Bai’s poem were tablets of other poems and pictures. There was one that stood out: a picture of bamboo leaves but each leaf was actually a Chinese character that together, constitutes a poem. The poem lauds the friendship of three historical figures and compares their friendship to the year-long leaves of a bamboo tree, showing the powerful and resilient nature of their relationship.

It is uncommon for Chinese paintings to have inscriptions, written by either the artist of the painting or an admirer of the artwork. The first inscriptions appeared in paintings during the Warring States Period (403 – 221 B.C.), “popularised in the Han Dyansty, 206 B.C. to 219 A.D., when four-character compositions were written on portraits in praise of the persons concerned” (“Inscription”, 72). By the Song Dynasty, poetic inscriptions had literary value and was made famous by poet Su Shi who believed that poetry and painting were the same thing; they were both “product of natural gift and freshness of vision” (“Inscription”, 72). Thenceforth, poetry is seen as the spoken form of paintings and paintings became the unspoken form of literature.

The carved picture of the bamboo leaves that constitutes a poem took a step further by turning words into art and the art is also the subject of the poem. Observing the middle ground where art and literature intersect, this ground blurs the line even further to invoke the reader and viewer’s admiration.

Because many famous poets have graced White Emperor’s City with their presence, the city is also known as “诗城“ or “Poetry City.” Inspired by the same beautiful landscape as the talents of China have, I took upon this moment to write a poem of my own, highlighting my sleepy classmates watching over the river that Li Bai sailed, how we no longer hear the sounds of the monkeys because the natural climate has been replaced by tourist and man-made architects. After saying it out aloud to Dr. Shao, I got a chuckle from our tour guide – I suppose every artist was made fun of before they became famous.


“Inscription on Chinese Painting.” pg. 70 -113.